Thursday, September 20, 2012

Asymmetric Advantage

The general media has gone to great lengths to point out, correctly, that many of our potential enemies have or are pursuing asymmetric advantages.  Mines, small boat suicide attacks, small boat swarms, fast attack missile boats, intermediate range ballistic missiles, small and quiet non-nuclear subs, and so forth.  What isn’t discussed is the fact that the US possesses, or could develop, asymmetric advantages of our own. 

Our two biggest conventional advantages are technology and money (current budget problems notwithstanding!).  These can be leveraged into asymmetric advantages.  What kinds of asymmetric advantages?  Well, this is where the imagination can go wild.  For the sake of brevity, I’d like to nominate one particular area that few other countries or non-state actors can match and that would provide disproportionate advantages for us.

Underwater Glider UUV

In real estate it’s location, location, location.  In war it’s recon, recon, recon.  Where’s the enemy and what are they doing?  If you know that, the battle gets a whole lot easier.  Call it intel or surveillance or recon or whatever, the ability to monitor the enemy is a priceless advantage.  Of course, the Navy already has many systems for collecting intel:  submarines, satellites, electronic signal intercepts, and so on.  To a greater or lesser extent those systems all collect information from a distance or, in the case of subs, put themselves at risk to get up close.  Why not develop systems that can get extremely close and have little risk of detection?  Well, in fact, the Navy is working on just such systems in the form of unmanned vehicles, both aerial and subsurface.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are solidly into their development curve and offer well known and powerful surveillance capabilities as demonstrated over today’s battlefields.  They do have a few disadvantages or limitations such as being fairly detectable, if one wishes to look for them, they have relatively limited range and endurance, and they are susceptible to control signal disruption.  These issues are undoubtedly being addressed.

Let’s look a bit further at Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs).  By comparison to UAVs, UUVs are in their infancy.  The Navy and industry are currently developing a variety of UUVs and there is no point attempting to describe specific systems.  Conceptually, UUVs offer the potential to retain many of the advantages of UAVs while avoiding some of the limitations.

UUVs, by their very nature as underwater vehicles, are extremely difficult to detect.  Consider how hard it is to detect a full size submarine and how much harder it must be to detect something a fraction of that size.  Once deployed in their operating area, UUVs can provide very close range surveillance of ships, mines, subs, harbors, coastlines, water conditions, geography, etc. with little risk.

Various technologies are being explored which may allow UUVs to operate almost indefinitely, thereby overcoming one of the limitations of UAVs.  Solar power, wave regeneration, thermal recharge, ionic recharge, etc. are all methods that offer the possibility of extremely long endurance.  Consider the advantages inherent in a UUV that can loiter for days or months, undetected, and providing continuous monitoring of an area.

Undetectable and Long Endurance

As the imagination expands a bit, the possible uses for UUVs are almost limitless.  Imagine being able to attach small shaped charges to an enemy ship in its own harbor, or being able to have a small UUV attach itself like a limpet to a ship or submarine to provide continuous tracking, or, with some lead time, mapping out a minefield.  The possibilities are endless!

Of course, there are associated problems.  Underwater communications is challenging.  It does no good to collect information if it can’t be transmitted.  Remote underwater control is even more difficult, bordering on impossible over any significant distance.  UUVs would largely have to operate autonomously.  Still, as with UAVs, these problems can be solved over time.

UUVs offer a potential asymmetric advantage that is extremely powerful and well worth continued intense development.  Few other countries and no non-state groups can either utilize or counter this technology.  The Navy would do well to commit significant resources to developing this potential advantage.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent. I am excited to finally read about the dominator/swarm concept. Reading about how to rebuild the navy from the 80's is interesting too. Soon we could be discussing if stealth airplanes and subs are outdated. Looking forward to your next post.


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